How to put the bit in a horse’s mouth

The most commonly seen type of bit, a snaffle bit lacks a shank, thus limiting its leverage compared to alternate designs. The standard snaffle features round, ring-shaped cheek pieces and a simple, two-piece jointed mouthpiece. Your bit will not be effective if it is not used properly, so you need to place the snaffle bit in the horse’s mouth correctly.

Identifying the Front of Your Bit

If you’re confused about how the snaffle bit should be placed in your horse’s mouth, you need to determine which way the bit goes. Before you put the bit on your bridle, pick up the snaffle bit and hold it in your hands. Notice that the mouthpieces are curved on either side of the joint. Fold the bit in half. If the bit goes together smoothly when bent, you have it facing the right direction. If the bit will not go together, you have it backwards. The bit needs to fold smoothly into itself when it is used in the horse’s mouth, otherwise it can be uncomfortable for your horse.

Attaching the Bit to the Bridle

It is essential that your bit be put on your bridle correctly. You can make sure it is right by folding your bit so that it fits together smoothly. Arrange your bridle so that it is facing the way it would when it is on the horse’s head. Make sure that the front of the bit is facing the top/front of the bridle and then attach the snaffle bit to the bridle. Your bridle’s headstall has cheek pieces that will buckle or snap around the loops on the outside of your snaffle bit.

Adjust the Bit

The bit should sit in the gap in your horse’s mouth behind the incisors. It should not dangle too loosely in the mouth or be held in the mouth so tightly that the horse is uncomfortable. The bit works though the application and release of pressure. Adjust the headstall so that the bit creates two wrinkles in the corner of the horse’s mouth without pinching.

Snaffles Versus Other Bits

Snaffle bits can be used in both English and Western riding. Almost all horses can be ridden using a snaffle, though some horses do better in other types of bits. The snaffle differs from a shanked bit or a curb bit.

The bit is the metal mouthpiece attached to the cheek pieces of your horse’s bridle. Together the bit and bridle headgear apply pressure on the horse’s head and mouth to steer and otherwise direct the horse while you are riding. Before you can ride your horse, you will need to set up your bridle correctly so that the bit is properly attached and facing the correct direction when you place it in your horse’s mouth.

Step 1

Undo the keepers on the end of both cheek pieces of the bridle. If you are using an English bridle, the keepers will unhook from the clasp and open. If you are using a Western bridle, you may need a screwdriver to remove the small screws holding the cheek pieces closed. These are called Chicago screws.

Step 2

Pick the bit up and identify the front of the bit. If it is a snaffle bit, fold it in your hands facing out in front of you. If it goes together smoothly, it is facing the right way. If it will not fold together neatly, it is backward. Turn it around and try again. If the bit is shanked, the shanks should curve back toward the horse, not out in front of the horse.

Step 3

Make sure the bit and the bridle are both facing the front, then run the end of the cheek piece through the loop on the bit and refasten the cheek piece so it is tightly closed. Do the same to the other side.

Step 4

Attach the reins to the bit by opening the keepers on the end of the reins and buckling them around the bit, below the area where you attached the cheek pieces. The reins will typically have the same type of buckle as the cheek pieces.

Application of a bit in the horse’s mouth can lead to unintended consequences. So, when fitting a bit we have to consider the shape of the bit in relation to the shape of the mouth as well as the areas that the bit puts pressure on and, finally, the response of the horse to the bit. All factors warrant careful examination but in this article we will only consider the lips and cheeks in relation to the teeth.

Bit Positioning

For successful control of the horse with a bit, many factors need to be taken into account. We cannot expect compliant behaviour if all elements of bit use are not properly addressed. Bit type, thickness and width, bridle fit, dental issues and rider attitude are some of the important factors. We also need to remember that the horse’s reaction to pain is flight. That means any bit use resulting in pain is likely to trigger a flight response instead of a controlled response by the horse. The bit requires a certain amount of space at the ideal location forward of the molar arcades at the corner of the mouth. In that position, it is most effective in getting better rider response as only small amounts of pressure on the bars of the mouth are used to signal the rider’s intention to which the horse responds. Should the bit be further forward, behaviour is unpredictable due to aggravation if the tongue is pushed over the bit causing severe discomfort due to the tongue not being available to cushion the pressure of bit against the bars of the mouth.

The bars of the mouth are the narrow bones that bridge the space between premolars and incisors. Adjustment of the cheek straps of the bridle determine how far forward in the mouth the bit is positioned. When the bit is further back in the mouth, response may be diminished as the horse may grab or grind the bit. This can then lead to lack of response on one or both reins. This is often accompanied by subtle head-tilting to one-side. We may also find the horse putting the nose in the air and then grabbing the bit. Often, this is what a horse does to reduce pressure by the bit on the lips and cheeks as these are being pressed against molar arcades. Should the horse open the mouth, the bit may even cause the cheeks or inner folds of the lips to be pulled over the lower molar surfaces. In either situation, this may cause bruising or laceration of the cheeks.

Why a Bit Comfort Area and not a Bit Seat?

As mentioned, the best position for the bit is forward of the molar arcades. The first grinding tooth in each arcade, known as the second premolar, should prevent the bit from going back too far into the mouth. For the bit to slide between the molar arcades is undesirable as it may cause significant loss of control. Let’s have a look at the main elements that we consider when attending to what we call the ‘bit comfort area’.

Teeth have prominent enamel ridges on their grinding surfaces to enable them to cut the tough fibre in the pasture. When performing equine dental procedures that alter the shape of the teeth we must leave as many of these ridges intact as possible. Removing them completely from just one pair of teeth, like the lower second premolars, will also cause 1/6 of the chewing surface area of the mouth to be lost. This in turn affects masticatory efficacy. For this reason, it is only these parts that are filed in the normal mouth:

  • Enamel ridges on the outer edges of the upper (pre)molars
  • Enamel ridges on the inner edges of the lower (pre)molars
  • Rounding the corners of the upper and lower second premolars located directly behind the bit

The last action must be done to an appropriate protocol, because aggressively removing dental material has been known to result in:

  • Opening the pulp canals causing endodontal infection due to the removal of too much dental material. The pulp canals can be as little as 3mm from the tooth surface. (McGarian, R M, 2010. Investigation Into the Different Characteristics of the Number 6 Pulp Chamber of Equine Mandibular Second Premolar Teeth, in Relation to Age, Breed and Gender. BSc. Hons. Hartpury UK: Hartpury College.)
  • Bit grabbing due to the bit sliding back between the teeth.
  • Hypersensitivity due to contact of the bit with tooth surfaces that are in very close proximity to the pulp canals. This combines with increased sensitivity through the dentinotubules, which are the channels which transmit pressure through the tooth and provide a sensing response. Horses have been known to bolt after the aggressive creation of bit seats.
  • Inner lip folds and cheeks that get forced between the teeth combine with bit pressure to lacerate or bruise the cheeks. We have found this to be very common in race horses when ring bits are used and there may be high head carriage.

On the horses that slip their tongue over the bit

What can one do to keep a high level Dressage Horse?
(that already knows Spanish walk, tempi changes, passage and piaffe) from slipping his tongue over or between the bits?
(This happens at least three times per workout)

S lipping the tongue over, or between the bits is a bad habit that horses often develop when they are being started (broke).
It is a serious defense, and it is mostly due to the horse feeling uncomfortable.

When starting a horse, always adjust the snaffle bit rather high with the noseband correctly placed.

Slipping the tongue is usually caused by using the wrong bit, wrong size, or incorrect adjustment and usage.

Note of translator: there is a hollow spot behind the horse’s chin (you can usually put your hand in it) between the jawbone, the groove in which the tongue rests inside the horse’s mouth. It will be referred to as the “tongue groove”.

1. Are your bits compatible with your horse’s mouth?

Horses that have a thick tongue or a narrow “tongue groove” suffer from the pressure created by the bit on the tongue and slip their tongue on top of it to relieve the pressure. If the horse has a narrow tongue and a wide “tongue groove”, all the bits will be compatible: the tongue will have enough space.
If this is not the case, more room must be made for the tongue.
A “tailored” curb bit (“L’Hotte” bit) helps most of the time. If it’s not enough, use a curb bit with a round, square or rectangular groove for the tongue.

How to tell if the bit is the right size?
The snaffle bit should about 2 mm (1/8th”) wider than the horse’s mouth at the corner of the mouth, and place slightly above the bridle bit. The curb bit must be exactly the same size as the width of the horse’s mouth, therefore narrower as the snaffle bit (about .5 cm – ј”).
Very thick bits are not advised. There is a general advantage to using thinner bits.

2. Are your bits well adjusted?

The bits have to be correctly placed on the bars (the spaces between the front teeth and the molars) without knocking on the teeth. Adjust the snaffle bit so that the corner of the mouth touches the bit without being wrinkled if possible. The bit must not hit the horse’s premolars.

This is easy to achieve with a horse with a normal mouth, or a rather high-split mouth.
When a horse has a low-split mouth, the snaffle bit is often placed too low and slips under the bridle bit. This modifies the effect of the two bits. The horse then raises the tongue and he can become uncomfortable in his mouth. It’s better to have a slightly wrinkled corner of the mouth in this case.
Place the curb bit slightly lower then the snaffle bit, without touching the canines, especially when dealing with a male horse.

Do not hesitate to add holes in the side pieces of your bridle, even if it does not look so good. It’s is very important.

The curb chain must always lie flat, and loose when the reins are loose. It has to tighten without slipping up when the bit is at an approximate 25 to 30 degree angle. The bit must never be at an angle greater than to 45 degrees.
A tight curb chain is very uncomfortable, the horse will set his head below the vertical and/or slip his tongue on top of the curb bit or on top of both bits to avoid pressure ; loosen the curb chain.

The fine tuning of the bits is done progressively, by trying different ways. It can change. An example is when the leather stretches over time…

The noseband should not allow the horse to open his mouth too far, permitting him to slip the tongue. It should just give the horse enough space to swallow and play with the bits…

3. Is it a riding skill problem?

What if the bits are the correct ones, and they are well adjusted, but the horse still slips the tongue?

Then it is a riding skill problem… or

It can also be a nervous response to the approach of a specific exercise (I.e. the piaffe), especially if it always happens at a certain moment or intermittently. It can also be boredom…

Try to determine when your horse is slipping the tongue. Test the horse’s calmness and relaxation.

The most efficient solution is to put your horse in the most comfortable posture possible for him: general balance, relaxation on the bit (head set), height of neck, general relaxation, and degree of impulsion…
Slipping the tongue is sometimes caused by the rider’s hands being too harsh or rigid, and do not give when the horse gives, etc.

The real remedy is to work on putting the horse “in your hands”.
When the head is placed correctly, the jaw is mobile and relaxed. The horse chews his bit and gives himself up to the rider completely. He “listens” to the hands of the rider, puts his tongue back in the natural position, under the bit or bits.
This is where the skill of the rider consists of keeping his horse “in his hands”.
As soon as the horse gives in, lower your hands profusely.
Try to feel if your hands are the cause of the problem, or if you have to slightly change the posture of the horse, or his head set.

This is a difficult problem that can take a long time to resolve.

In conclusion, check if the bits are well adapted and well adjusted to your horse’s mouth, or if you have to revise some parts of your riding skills.
Observe, reflect and feel.


Henri Wagneur, a Rider from Switzerland, (website at brings us the following precisions:

About slipping the tongue, I have had to deal with numerous circus horses that had never been ridding in their lives because they were free lunged. Some of them still slip their tongue, even with a well adjusted bridle. What I do when the horse slips the tongue over the bit, that has always worked well for me, is the following: I call him to me, put his tongue back in place, pat him and give him a couple of treats. It takes a while but the horses generally stop by themselves after several weeks.
I proceed the same way with young horses on the lunge and sometimes when I work on foot and they try to slip the tongue.

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 March 2007

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The objective was to describe and compare the positions of different types of bits within the horse’s oral cavity. Eight horses were fitted with a bridle and six bits [jointed snaffle ( JS), Boucher, KK Ultra, Myler snaffle (MylerS), Myler ported barrel (MylerPB), Myler correctional-ported barrel (MylerCPB)]. Lateral radiographs and custom software were used to measure the position and orientation of the bits relative to the horse’s palate and second premolar teeth without rein tension and with 25±5 N bilateral rein tension. The results showed differences in the position of the bits within the horse’s oral cavity and in their movements in response to rein tension. Without rein tension, single-jointed bits were further from the premolar teeth ( JS 32.2±10.6 mm; Boucher 33.9±10.8 mm) than the Myler bits (MylerS 20.2±9.7 mm; MylerPB 12.8±6.7 mm; MylerCPB 14.6±4.3 mm). Single-jointed bits moved closer to the premolars when tension was applied to the reins (JS 20.8±6.3 mm; Boucher 19.7±6.8 mm). The cannons of the Boucher were more elevated than those of the other bits. The cannon angulation decreased significantly from 38.7±13.7 deg. to 21.6±6.9 deg. for JS and from 43.1±10.1 deg. to 27.8±10.1 deg. for the Boucher when tension was applied to the reins. The Myler bits showed minimal change in position in response to the application of rein tension.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

For a bit to work correctly, it needs to be sitting in the mouth correctly, and that means it must fit. A bit that is too small may pinch or make it hard for the horse to close its mouth properly. A bit that is too large will slide back and forth in the horse’s mouth, perhaps even knocking on the horse’s teeth. In either case, your rein aids will not be accurate, and your horse won’t be getting the right messages about stopping and turning. Traditionally, horsemen have used the ‘one wrinkle’ rule to determine if the bit is sitting in the right place in the mouth and fits correctly. One wrinkle at the corner of of the horse’s mouth meant the bit was sitting in the right place. This isn’t always accurate and doesn’t necessarily mean the bit fits or is adjusted properly. The bit should fit comfortably across the bars (the toothless gap between the incisors and molars) of the horse’s jaw, and that may mean there isn’t just one wrinkle or any wrinkle at all.

If you fit a jointed bit, like a D-ring or loose ring snaffle, there may be no wrinkle on the lips at all. That doesn’t mean the bit doesn’t fit. The way the bit looks on the outside may not have anything to do with what is happening the horse’s mouth. Take a look inside the horse’s mouth by lifting the lips and notice where the bit is sitting on the bars. It should not be sitting so high or low as to hit the teeth on either side of the bar. Pay attention to the horse’s reaction too. Your horse might tell you by chewing and mouthing the bit, or other behavior, that it’s not comfortable. If the bit isn’t positioned in the mouth evenly, the horse could start carrying its head to one side or toss its head. Adjust the bridle so that the bit sits balanced on both sides and sits comfortably in the center of the bars.

Fitting the bit might not just be a matter of positioning but of the size and shape of the bit itself. Horses have differently shaped mouths, meaning different bits may be more comfortable for some than others. You might have measured your horse’s mouth and decided to buy a 5-inch bit. However, the length of the mouthpiece is not the only thing to consider. Horse’s mouths come in different sizes and shapes, just like two people may have the same sized feet but won’t necessarily be able to wear the exact same type of shoe.

For example, you might think of a very thick eggbutt snaffle as a very soft comfortable bit, but for a horse with a fleshy tongue and low palate, it may be an uncomfortable mouthful. The bit may fit width-wise, but not in thickness. So if you’re having trouble getting your horse to carry a bit quietly, consider trying another type of mouthpiece. Some horses like jointed mouthpieces, or seem more comfortable in different types of joints, such as a French link rather than a loose ring snaffle. Some horses may be happier with a bit with a port that gives some room for their tongue. The width, shape, and thickness of the mouthpiece are factors in fitting the bit correctly.

It can take a bit of trial and error to find the correct position in the horse’s mouth for the bit. Try adjusting the bit according to the where the bit is sitting in the horse’s mouth, and try different types of mouthpieces as well. Your horse’s bit may be the correct size, but if it isn’t sitting in the correct position, it won’t be comfortable or effective.

Q: My unbroken, six-year-old mare has just been introduced to the bit. She isn’t particularly impressed with it. Would you recommend a bit for youngsters?

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Liz McGoun answers:
First and foremost – and just as a precautionary measure – have her teeth and mouth checked by a veterinary surgeon, or qualified equine dentist.

Then, if everything is fine, I’d start with a Nathe or Happy Mouth straight bar on loose rings. Attach it to a simple headpiece with no browband or noseband, so there is nothing to have to fiddle with. Even smother the bit with honey or molasses, to give her something pleasant to suck on!

Try doing some ‘mouth-work’ to familiarise her with having her mouth handled, but do take care in case she objects.

Start working on the muzzle, lips and nostrils, gently massaging and rolling the loose skin and flesh between your fingers.

Once she is happy to accept this, wet your hands, then try to rub gently around her upper and lower gums, progressing to rubbing along the bars.

Do not, however, try to achieve all this in one session – spend about 10 minutes a day, gradually desensitising her.

Open wide!

If possible, do this in an enclosed place with her wearing a headcollar, but not tied up. When she is relaxed having her mouth handled, calmly teach her to open her mouth.

Using your left hand, insert your thumb over the bars and press the tongue lightly. At the same time, use your other hand to gently restrain her nose. Accompany the physical request with a voice command of your choice.

The important point is to ensure she doesn’t panic when you restrain her. Then, once she’s relaxed, introduce the Nathe or Happy Mouth bit, ensuring there are no hazards she could catch the bit on if she rubs. Provided that she is not panicking, leave her for 10 to 15 minutes to play with the bit.

Continue with a non-metal mouthpiece until she is bitted, accepting and giving to pressure on the mouth applied through the bit. If she works well in it, there is no real reason to change. There are many varieties of single and double-jointed, non-metal bits on the market.

Add to Mendeley


Fluoroscopic techniques were used to observe the position and movements of a jointed snaffle bit within the horse’s oral cavity and to study the effects of using the reins unilaterally or bilaterally. In the resting position the mouthpiece was interposed between the tongue and hard palate, indenting the dorsum of the tongue. By elevation and retraction of the tongue the horse was able to raise the bit between the cheek teeth. This action was facilitated when the bit used was either too wide or was adjusted too low in the horse’s mouth. The application of an equal force to both reins simultaneously caused the bit to move caudally, deepening the indentation in the horse’s tongue. If the reins were used asymmetrically the net effect depended on the relative forces applied to the active and opposing reins. It was not possible to produce an independent effect on one side of the mouth.

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First author’s address: Department of Veterinary Anatomy, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7N OWO, Canada.

Second author’s address: Department of Veterinary Surgey, University of Glasgow Veterinary Hospital, Bearsden Road, Bearsden, Glasgow, G61 1QH, Scotland.

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Hippomundo talks to equine dental specialist Géraldine Vandevenne about problems caused by ill-fitting bits, bridles – and even riding styles.

He who owns horses has to deal with a lot of uncertainties… Will I get my mare in foals? Is my foal healthy? Is my horse talented? Is he sweet? … These are some of the hundreds of questions you ask yourself as a breeder and rider. But there are many more questions to come up with. An important one, for example: “with which bit should I ride my horse?”

To find out more about bits, we met Géraldine Vandevenne from Equibitfit. In daily life she mainly works as a dental caregiver where she often encounters problems associated with the bit. Due to more and more questions from riders about the bit in combination with their horse, Géraldine decided to delve even deeper. “May I clarify something,” Géraldine begins our interview. “For me, bitfitting is not just about looking at the bit, but also about looking at the bridle that comes with the bit. You would be amazed at the effect of a browband that is 2 cm too small! ”

The emergence

“Actually bitfitting was created because we regularly saw injuries in the horse’s mouth and there were also many riders who asked what type of bit I could recommend for their horse. However, I am only human and I did not know all disciplines and all types of bits and so I decided to find out more about that. That was about 8 years ago. In the beginning it was very difficult, because there was little literature or scientific research about bits, let alone an education to learn more. There were some people who talked about the effect of curbs, for example, but they really talked purely about the bit and actually not many people listened to them. They were the pioneers! (laughs). ”

“Luckily, we have already become smarter and we now know that the bridles also have an important influence. We even do bit-less fitting, because there is also a lot of difference between bitless bridles. Especially in the last 2 years, a lot of scientific research has been done into the influence that a bridle can have on the biomechanics of the horse. ”

A fitting session

How do you know as a rider whether your horse has a bad position on the bit because of his bit, bridle or his back? “That’s a good question,” says Géraldine. “Before I come for a consultation, I like people to have already completed a checklist: a report from the dentist, but also the osteopath, physio and veterinarian can have important information for me. For example, a horse that has just had a tendon injury will compensate. This may lead to different bit problems than before the injury. Ideally, as a rider you also exclude that your saddle isn’t fitting well, because that can also cause many rideability problems. For me, the bitfitter is the last to come; all the other things must first be in order! ”

“The influence of the rider is of course also great on the bit. I have enough customers where, for example, the horse is ridden by two different people and they often need a different bit and, also regularly, a different bridle to achieve optimal comfort. All riders have a different style, strength in their hand, a good side, … These are all important things in the search for the right bit. Sometimes people are also confused during a fitting session, because then I end up with 2 double-jointed snaffles and then they say: ‘Yes, but those are two identical bits, I do not have to fit both’, but it is not that simple. They may look very similar, but there are small differences that make the pressure distribution completely different for the horse. I always try to explain it using shoes. You may love Nike Air Max’s in terms of comfort while your best friend may really hate them to walk on. Just as every foot is different, every horse’s mouth also has its own needs! ”


“Such a consultation takes an hour or two and while we can solve a lot, we cannot work miracles. To give an example: suppose the rider rides with a very strong right hand, then the trainer has probably already paid a lot of attention to that. That is not something we can solve in two hours. But what we can do, is optimize the situation. Ensure that the material is optimally adapted to the horse and the riding style so that it is easier for the horse and rider. We then try to get rid of imperfections and make it all more harmonious! This makes it easier for the rider and makes riding better and easier for the horse. And very important: we ensure that no injuries occur! ”

Breaking in

What is the ideal bit to train a young horse comfortably, without injuries? “That is a frequently asked question. There is no perfect bit, because, just think of the shoes, there is no shoe that suits everyone. That said, there are bits that suit a rider well. What we often do with riders who train young horses is to search with them for a set of basic tools, bits that are already tailored to the rider and that we can try out with the young horses. Often the advice is given to start a young horse with a full cheek snaffle, but experience shows that there are enough horses that do not find that pressure on their cheek comfortable at all. It’s a bit of a quest. Some horses accept any bit, while others protest vehemently. If you only have one horse, it is of course easier to do a consultation at the start of their training, but I know that it is simply not feasible for professionals. And that is also understandable. But the more comfortable a horse feels on the bit, the easier the training will go, that is a fact. ”

Eureka! Or not?

You undoubtedly recognize it… You try a new bit and your horse is going like never before. It’s easy and you’re sure: this is what you’ve been looking for all along! Until you are three weeks later… The bit no longer has any effect?! “A horse can of course react very differently at a competition than at home, but for starters, the horse must be comfortable on the bit in its mouth, let’s put that first. Sometimes horses are very heavy in the ring and riders think they need a heavier bit, while the horse is actually very uncomfortable and just tries to escape from the bit. Its is always a pity to see that things escalated to this situation… In addition, many riders do not know that by playing with the rings you can already change a lot in the intensity of a bit. Exactly the same bit with fixed rings, can give a very different reaction than the same bit with loose rings for example. Switching to a heavier bit too quickly can cause a horse to really die in the mouth. That is a pity, because often horses become lighter in the mouth of a lighter bit. When a horse is comfortable, it will become light in his mouth. If he feels uncomfortable, he will weigh heavily. And sometimes, with a bridle pressure gauge, you can really be amazed at how heavy it is. Then we are really talking about kilos! ”

“Sometimes riders put a new (heavier) bit in the mouth and then the horse goes very easily in the first weeks. That horse is now thinking “Ai, that hurts a bit so I will stay away from it”. After a while he will start to push to resist and then most riders will react by switching to an even heavier bit… You can already see it: a vicious circle! Sometimes you better go a step lighter: keep it simple! You just have to find the balance between what is comfortable for the horse and still safe for the rider. ”


“Riders are often guided by fashion. Then they call me and say, “I bought an anatomical bridle.” But there are 100 anatomical bridles in the shop and they are all different, each with their own effect … The riders don’t always think about that! Sometimes their bridle is worn out and then they buy a new bridle and say: the bit is no longer working. But what they don’t realise is that their new bridle works differently than the model they had before. Also new type of bits make riders want to try and switch, but I only have one advice: keep it simple because at the end of the ride, it is often best! ”

A dog behaviourist once made an interesting statement in a lecture about the widespread use of dog collars: “ We call dogs “man’s best friends”, then we tie a noose around their necks and drag them around after us. Some way to treat a friend”. She was extolling the virtues of head collars, harnesses and other more humane ways of controlling dogs when out on walks.
Similar arguments can be made in the equine world over the use of the traditional snaffle bit, which is the conventional way to control a horse.
Anyone who has worked with horses will know how snaffle bits work. The basic construction is a jointed metal bar attached to a metal ring on either side. The reins attach to these rings. The bar sits inside the horses mouth, so when the reins are pulled, pressure is applied via the bar to the inside of the mouth. The specific area of contact is the part of the gums that have no teeth, known as “the bars” of a horse’s mouth. This area is between the incisor teeth at the front (which are used to pick up food) and the molar teeth at the back (which grind up the food up before it’s swallowed). The snaffle bit is meant to be placed just in front of the back teeth. The idea is that the bit does not have direct contact with the teeth: instead, it places pressure directly on the soft tissue of the gums.
If a horse is well trained, the bit is used in a gentle way, with very mild pressure passing on the wishes of the rider to the horse, in a similar way to a traditional collar being used to guide a well behaved dog.
However if a horse is unruly, or if there are other reasons why the rider may be having difficulties controlling the animal, a snaffle bit can present a welfare challenge, causing pain and irritation.
A recent letter to the Vet Record highlighted the fact that this was visible during the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Several horses were seen on television tossing their heads, mouthing and chomping and drooling in possible oral discomfort. The letter writer suggested that the Royal horse brigade should “get with the times and put animal welfare and respect before blind tradition”
A “bitless bridle” has been available for many years, and has become increasingly popular. Traditionally, the most obvious reasons for using such a device would be a mouth injury which would make a snaffle bit painful, or if a horse was “sensitive in the mouth”. However many owners now use bitless bridles routinely, because they believe that it’s just a kinder way to ride a horse.
While it’s true that “going bitless” may not be the right answer for every horse and every rider, it may be a more humane option. Proponents claim that its use encourages horses to be more forward going, with greater freedom of movement, and improved jumping technique. And at a welfare level, the bitless bridle tends to result in a happier and more willing horse that has closer, more sensitive contact with the rider. Riders who are familiar with the bitless bridle learn to use their seat and legs more when communicating with the horse, becoming less reliant on the reins to control the animal.
We should be guided by animal welfare and science when we decide how to work with animals: traditions may feel secure and natural, but if they have an adverse effect on animal welfare, surely it’s time to think again?

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It’s only since trying very hard to be a vegan, that I’ve been more thoughtful towards animals in general. I used to horseride in my younger days and am ashamed to say that I didn’t give bits a thought. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realise how unkind this piece of horse gear is.
Please let’s try and put an end to the bits use.

Equine Education and Communication

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth
It is a good idea with a young, inexperienced horse to work with his mouth before introducing a bit. Play with his lips. Put your fingers into his mouth, massage his bars, rub his palate. This can be done with newborn foals during the imprinting process or on an older horse who has not had it done before. Of course, this has more advantages than just bitting. It helps with vet exams, worming, dental checks etc.

Rule of thumb is to fit your bit with one or two wrinkles at the corner of your horse’s mouth. It is common to put the bit a little lower in a green colt’s mouth so that he learns to pick it up himself and carry it (usually with his tongue arched against it). Later it should be lifted a little to the standard position. (see the article about Bit Fit for measuring the width of the new bit.

Watch for wolf teeth in the young horse. They are the vestigial teeth thought to be the evolved useless “tusks” from early horses – called wolf teeth because they look much like a small fang. Most common in colts, they are also frequently found in fillies. Most young horses lose their wolf teeth by 4 years of age. They can be an irritant to a horse wearing a bit.

Whether bitting your horse for the first time or transitioning to a new bit, put the headstall and bit onto your horse in a comfortable, confined space such as his stall, and let him wear it daily – slowly working the time up to several hours – before you add reins or pressure. He can eat with it. He can drink with it. He can play with it with his tongue. He can figure out that there is no way to get away from it.

After a couple of days (a few hours) of passive work, put his rope halter under his headstall and take him to the round pen, wearing his reinless-bit but using his halter to lunge and practice gaiting exercises. If he has to think while he wears it, he can’t concentrate on how to get rid of it. He will learn to “carry” his bit before any pressure is applied.

Work through all of his ground training exercises in this fashion for a few days.

(The optimal solution for this stage is a side-pull with the option of bit or no bit, but they are very hard to find, thus the rope halter UNDER the headstall.)

After your horse has worn his bit with no pressure, attach the reins to the bit instead of the halter. Start from the beginning as if he were just learning to wear his halter. The routine is the same for transitioning to a new bit as for experiencing one for the first time. Either way, the feel is different than he has experienced previously, and he must learn how to understand the new pressures.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Changing Sides: Practiced without a bit, this exercise sensitizes his muzzle to pressure that moves him away from the pressure and into the turn.
See More about sensitizing your horse to direct bit pressure on the ground

Lateral Flex: Put reins on the bit and stand at your horse’s girth. Lay the reins over his neck. Pull the rein on the near side toward the saddle cinch area, forcing his head to his girth. (This should not be as difficult as it was the first time you tried it with a halter see Flex Training). He may object at first, feeling the bit pull on his mouth for the first time. Expect a head toss or two, but hold on until he actually comes toward your pull with his own motion and then drop the pressure on the rein like a hot potato (release). After doing this two or three times, he should become a master at bit-induced lateral softening. Don’t forget to do it on both sides.

Poll Flex: Will your horse lower his head when you request it by moving away from your pressure on his poll? If so, you are half way to lowering his head using the bit.

Leave your lead rope attached to the under-lying halter just draped over your arm loosely.

Stand in at your horse’s shoulder facing his side. Grab both reins under his throat at his neck, pull them back until his head is on the vertical, simulating the rider pulling back. If you can’t get his head to come down at all and he starts to object by backing away or throwing his head up (expected at first), use the halter to bring him down simultaneously with the reins. The two requests, reins then immediately halter, will help him associate the draw-down of the bit with the lowering of his face.

Hold the reins until he relents, gives up pulling against the bit and comes in to you (brings his head into his chest). Release instantly!! Take a “baby step” of just 2 inches of head-lowering if that’s all he gives you the first couple of times, then shape it into a fully vertical face.

Expect him to try to force the reins to relax by tossing his head. Or he may try to walk through the bit by moving forward. Control him but don’t let go until he lowers his head. (If he gets too crazy, he is not ready for this exercise. He needs more Yield training)

This exercise will show him that bringing his head down in response to pull-back bit pressure will release the pressure. After a couple of times when you release, you will find that he doesn’t spring back instantly. With just a slight pull-back he will lower his face by himself – releasing the pressure by himself. He will have found the “sweet spot” head position.

After learning to both flex laterally and come back to you with his head, he is ready to practice the same exercises with you on his back. (assuming he is rideable at this stage of training)

The whole goal of introducing in stages is to develop a horse who accepts his bit as just another day at the ranch – no trauma, no worries.

Horse’s possess seven control (pressure) points on and around the head where pressure of some type may be applied to direct and/or control a horse. The points are: the mouth, the lips, the tongue, the bars, and the roof of the mouth, the nose, chin groove and the poll. The horse learns that pressure in a certain area means to slow down, stop, turn or change his head position. The lips control the height and width of the bit. Too narrow of a bit will pinch the soft skin at the corners of the lips and too wide a bit will produce the same result as a lot more pressure will have to be put on the reins to get some response from the corners, increasing the pressure on the soft corners of the lips. Applying pressure to one or more of these pressure points will cause the horse to react in certain ways.

The Snaffle Bit

The snaffle bit is a direct pressure bit. Direct pressure means if you use two ounces of pressure on the reins, the horse feels two ounces of pressure on his/her mouth or nose from the bit.Direct pressure bit. Acts on the tongue, the bars in a straight snaffle and the sides of the bars in the case of a jointed snaffle, and the lips and corners of the mouth. The distance between the upper and lower jawbones when the mouth is closed determines the choice of bit thickness. The bit, no matter what thickness, should fit comfortably over the tongue and on the bars without cutting into either the tongue or the bars.
How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

  • Stainless Steel – most common metal
  • Other Metals (Copper, Sweet Iron, German Silver) encourage salivation and chewing of bit
  • Synthetics (Rubber, “Happy Mouth”) – some horses accept these better than metal
  • The diameter of the mouthpiece typically varies from 5/16 inch to 3/4 inch, although there are smaller & larger sizes

Number of pieces:

  • Mullen Mouth – No joints, straight pressure on the bars.
  • Single Joint – Single joints create a nutcracker effect that acts on the bars of the mouth, over the tongue and on the lips
  • French Link – mildest of the snaffle bits, the three pieces relieves pressure on bars
  • O-Ring or Loose Ring – the mildest
  • D-Ring & Eggbutt – adds slightly to severity
  • Full Cheek – adds cheek pressure & prevents bit from pulling through mouth
  • Rollers give the bit some “play” and also prevents the horse from “grabbing” the bit. Rollers can be made of stainless steel or copper.

The Curb Bit

The curb bit is considered a leverage bit. The bit works in conjunction with a curb chain, consisting of a straight mouthpiece attached at either end to long metal cheeks or shanks. All curb bits act on the nose, bars, lips, chin groove and tongue. Curbs with long shanks also act on the poll, and those with high ports act on the roof of the mouth. The action on the chin groove is via the curb chain, which acts as a fulcrum and without which the curb bit would only act as a snaffle. A curb bit works by leverage on the lower jaw, applying pressure on the chin groove by means of the chain. The longer the lower section of the metal mouthpiece, the greater the pressure applied to the lower jaw.

  • Should permit the bit to pull back 45 degrees. A general suggestion is that two fingers will fit between the curb chain and the animal’s chin. Also make sure that there are no knotted or twisted materials underneath the animal’s jaw.

Port HeightHow to put the bit in a horse's mouth

  • Upward curve centered on an unjointed mouthpiece; included to provide tongue space or discourage the tongue from getting over the bit; ranges from a slight undulation in the outline to an extension measuring an inch or above. Low port curb – Provides small space for tongue to squeeze into and reaches the bars later. Applies tongue pressure first, and then pressure to the bars. High port curb – Slightly more severe. Bit touches down on bars earlier and tongue is pressed up into large, but narrowing port as it rotates. Lays down forward into the tongue and bars when rotated with a pull on the reins
  • The part of the bit above the mouthpiece. With a short purchase, the bit will act quicker in the horse’s mouth when the rider pulls on the reins. The bit is slower to react with a long purchase
  • The shank length increase the leverage action of the bit. The shorter the shank, the less severe the bit.
  • A suitable bit’s shanks will bend back towards the horse’s body, decreasing the severity of the leverage.

There are hundreds of different bits in the market place. Bit selection will depend on the types of classes the horse is shown in as well as the age of the horse. Always choose the mildest bit the horse will work with to accomplish the job required.

Posted by Anita Marchesani on Apr 03, 2014

There is a lot of confusion for riders surrounding choosing a new bit for their horse. A lot of my clients email or call me not just because they are looking for help with a problem, but because they want to find a bit that their horse will be comfortable in.

For me, the comfort of the horse is as important as the safety of the rider. Improved comfort gives the rider improved communication, a more relaxed animal underneath them, a more enjoyable ride. Riders will often complain that their horse is “heavy” in the hand, that they “pull” or “lean” on the bit. I have said previously that riders need to look to their own riding often when a horse is “heavy” or “leaning”, and I won’t revisit that here. However, another reason for a horse being heavy in the hand can be from discomfort in the mouth, as horses will generally push INTO pain. They can do this to numb the area, or they can do it to run away from the discomfort. (again, the discomfort of the bit can be from incorrect use or too strong a contact from the rider).

There are so many different shapes, thicknesses, compositions, weights and styles of bits that it can be hard for a rider to decide what might be a more comfortable option. So much of bitting comes down to experimentation, but how do we know where to start? By taking a look at your horse’s mouth.

It’s not very hard, and really, the amount of time we spend looking at saddles, checking the back, trying different saddle pads- when was the last time you looked at your horse’s mouth?

Here’s what I suggest you do. Put your horse in a halter and have a look at him from the side. Does he have thin, fine skinned lips? Or are they bulbous and fleshy? Are they pink and delicate? Are there any marks there at all? How long is the lip line- does the mouth end before the chin groove or after?

an older gelding with a fat tongue obscuring his front teeth

Now take his lips from the side and part them a little with your fingers. If he is a gelding he should have two canines in the middle, if he is young, they may not be coming through just yet, but you may see or feel the buds of them in the gum. If she is a mare, have a feel along the bars, as sometimes there are tiny bumps where the canines would be on a male. Have a feel along the bars- they are usually a lot sharper than most people realise!

Now look at the tongue. It fills the mouth cavity doesn’t it? There’s really not a lot of room there for, well, anything except a tongue really. If the tongue is bulging out and perhaps obscuring the canines or front teeth, I would call this a “fat tongue”. A normal tongue will still fill the mouth cavity though. Have a look at the gums, and look for any redness or discoloration, particularly where you bit sits that may indicate bruising.

Do this on both sides, then pop the bridle on and have another look. It is very important to assess the placement of the bit in the mouth buy looking IN THE MOUTH, not simply at the wrinkles on the lips. Should your gelding have a short lip line (or your bit sit too low in a longer mouth) the bit will painfully and repeatedly bump into the canine teeth- this can deaden the nerve and kill the tooth. In humans, a dead nerve means a root canal- ow!

the bit ideally placed in the horse’s mouth- clearly halfway between the canine and the molar teeth.

Ideally the mouthpiece should sit halfway between the molars and the canine, or in a mare where the canines would be. The correct placement of the bit should not be judged on the wrinkles of the lips, as some horses have very long mouths and others have very short ones. Trust me, a short lipped horse will be more comfortable with a few more wrinkles in his stretchy, fleshy lips than with a solid bar of metal banging into his canines.

Look also at the thickness and shape of your mouthpiece. Can you horse comfortable close his jaws and move his tongue? Hold the reins and take a contact, can he still do the same? look at how the bit moves in the mouth as you take the contact. (you might need a helper for this). Very thick mouthpieces (over 2cm generally) do not suit most horses as they cannot comfortably close their jaws around it, and really most ponies and smaller hacks do not have room for a double bridle set (unless particularly fine).

Looking at your horse’s mouth in this detail does not take very long, and you will be amazed at what you see! I highly recommend everyone to take a peek.

A bit is a type of equipment that is put in a horse’s mouth to help control it. It is attached to a bridle to hold it on the horse’s head, and to reins which the rider holds and allows them to control and cue the horse. The mouthpiece of the bit is the part that goes into the horses mouth. It is usually made of metal, but may also be made of plastic or rubber.

There are many different types of bits, including snaffles, pelhams, and curb bits. They all work a little differently. Some bits are “softer” than others, meaning that a pull on it is gentler to the horse than a “harsh” bit. For example, bits with a smooth mouthpiece are soften than those with a twisted mouthpiece. Bits are not cruel when used correctly, but a rider that pulls too hard can hurt a horse’s mouth, especially if they use a harsh bit. If a rider is inexperienced, they should ride with a softer bit so when they make mistakes they do not hurt the horse. Experienced riders who can follow the horse’s mouth as the horse moves and give very slight cues can use bits that are harsher. They have the skill to use the bits for very fine control over the horse, without hurting it.

Certain bits are commonly used in certain horse activities. For example, western style riding usually uses a curb bit. English style usually uses a type of snaffle, although certain horses may be put in a different type of bit. Saddleseat riding and high levels of dressage riding use a double bridle. This is a bridle that holds 2 bits. Each bit works a little differently so the rider can cue the horse to do different things. The rider must ride with 2 reins in each hand. This requires the rider to be skilled so they can handle both reins without confusing the horse.

Images for kids

A horse wearing an English bridle with a snaffle bit, the end of which can be seen just sticking out of the mouth. The bit is not the metal ring.

Sometimes, there are several ways to get something done, and more than one of them would work. But when it comes to how to put a bridle on a horse, there’s actually only one PROPER way to do it.

Note: T his will be much easier if your horse is already good at lowering his head. I have several how-to videos on this subject on the Buckaroo Crew.

How To Put A Bridle On A Horse | Preparation

You can use a soft lead rope for this, and even put some jelly on the lead rope for an extra incentive. Start by rubbing around the mouth with the lead rope. If the horse raises his head, just go with him and hang in there. If he’s been taught to lower his head already, you can get it back down pretty easily.

Put a finger/thumb in the corner of his mouth to encourage his jaw to break loose and the mouth to open.Then lay the lead rope in the crease of his lips while using finger/thumb again until he opens his mouth. Lift the soft rope into his mouth in the position where the bit will lie. Hold it a few seconds and then let it fall out. Repeat this until he seems comfortable with it.

Now It’s Time To Put The Bridle On The Horse

Put the reins over his neck and your left hand on the crownpiece (the top of the bridle). Don’t try to put the bit in his mouth, but lift the bridle up until the crownpiece is near his ears, his nose is through the bridle opening, and the bit is BEHIND his jaw (under his chin). You can use your right hand to keep the bridle open while you’re doing this. Then drape your right arm over his poll between his ears and take the crownpiece in your right hand, leaving your left hand free.

Your Right Hand Has Become Your ‘Working’ Hand

And subsequently, your left hand is the ‘guide’ hand as you put the bridle on the horse. Use your left hand to spread the bit and your pinky finger to open the curb strap. Lower the bridle, use your thumb to encourage his mouth to open, and GENTLY float the bit into his mouth BY raising your right (working) hand so that the bit simply floats into his mouth.

NEVER force the bit into his mouth or let it bang on his teeth. Finish by pulling the crown piece over his ears and buckling the throatlatch.


When it’s time to unbridle, you can teach the horse to be patient by moving the crownpiece back and forth some before you actually lift it off his ears. Keep the entire weight of the bit suspended by your holding the crownpiece as you continue to unbridle the horse.

Never let the bit ‘fall’ out of his mouth. Allow it to float out of his mouth by lowering your right hand that is holding the crownpiece. A horse that is bridled properly will never have a reason to fight against it.

And that’s the best and most accurate way to put a bridle on a horse.


Sometimes it’s hard to know what type of head gear you should be using on your horse. There’s snaffles, hackamores, various shank bits, and the list goes on and on. Because of the complexity of the matter, I made a video breaking it all down and show you what you should be using, when you should be using it, and why.

Carson James’ background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they’re easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.

How to measure your horse for a bit

Use a piece of smooth round wood, e.g. a wooden spoon handle or piece of doweling, and two rein stops (rubber bands can be used but are slightly less accurate.) Put the wooden rod into your horses mouth, so that it just lifts the corners of his lips into no more than 2 wrinkles, and push the rein stops up to touch his lips on either side. Remove the wood, and measure the gap from the outside of the rein stops to give the correct bit size including the right amount of clearance for the bit. If you are between sizes (e.g. 5 1/4″), it is normally better to choose the smaller of the two sizes (e.g. 5″) unless opting for a loose ring bit when it can be advantageous to go slightly large to prevent pinching.

Which bit should I buy for my horse?

It can be a challenge to find the right bit for your horse, particularly if they are new to you and rider and horse are still getting to know each other. The eye of a sympathetic and knowledgeable trainer is often a tremendous help as they are able to asses horse and rider as a partnership and spot the signs the horse is displaying and suggest a good bit to try. There are however some conformational pointers you can look for that help to suggest what type of bit may suit your horse and narrow the search. Certain breeds of horse can be prone to certain mouth shapes for example cob types often have large tongues which leave little room for a thick bit to sit comfortably in. Using a thick bit on a horse with a large tongue will often result in the horse opening their mouth, sticking their tongue out or trying to get the tongue over the bit- anything to relive the pressure. Often, a flash will then be used to stop this behaviour, but a bi like cough mixture this relieves the symptoms but is not actually solving the problem! Thin bits are often considered to be severe, but if a horse has a thick tongue a thinner bit will allow the horse to relax and swallow where a thicker ‘kind’ bit would not, presuming the rider is competent enough not to need the reins for support the thin bit is actually far kinder to the horse.
When examining your horses mouth, have a look carefully at the shape and anything that is different or unusual as even little things can potentially make a big difference to the way a horse will react in a bit. The table below outlines some of the common observations in a horses mouth, the bitting implications and possible solutions.

Mouth observation: Possible bitting problems: Bitting suggestions:
The horses tongue bulges out from the bit space in his teeth when the lip is lifted. Often an indication of a large tongue. This means the horse potentially does not have a lot of space to comfortably hold a bit and restriction in swallowing could be a problem. A thinner than average bit is better for horses with a large tongue, and often a gently ported or double jointed bit will give more tongue space and allow the horse to swallow more easily.
The horses front teeth don’t meet properly, meaning the molars do not end squarely either. Often a horse has an overshot (also known as a parrot mouth) or undershot jaw. This can result in the molars not meeting squarely which can lead to sharp hooks developing far sooner than usual which can lead to bitting problems. Any bit is suitable for a horse with slightly unusual jaw conformation, but you may find the horse prefers a thinner bit positioned fractionally lower than usual so as not to contact the teeth unduly.
The roof of the horses mouth is obvious and pushes down into the horses tongue/ A low palette is common among a lot of breeds including Arabs and TB’s and their crosses. Bits that exert pressure on this sensitive part of the mouth can cause discomfort. A single joint should be avoided as this can jab the roof of the mouth causing the horse to toss their head to try and escape the action. A double joint (ideally a lozenge centre if the horse also has a large tongue) or gentle mullen mouth and definitely on the thinner side will be the most suitable.
The bar of the horses jaw (where the bit sits) is sore, bruised or puffy. Horses with sore bars need a bit that is not going to exert pressure on the bars of their mouth. Mullen mouthpieces, or combination style bits that help to remove pressure from the bars are kindest. The bit should ideally not be too thin to increase the bearing surface of the mouthpiece. In extreme cases it may even be necessary to use a bitless (hackamore) bridle for a time until the horse is less sensitive.
The horses lips bulge out when the bit is in his mouth. Fleshy lips are common particularly with heavier breeds, and can be prone to damage from tight bits. Any bit is potentially suitable for a horse with fleshy lips, but generally a thinner bi is less likely to cause a split in the corner (as long as the rider is competent) as it will not stretch the skin as much. It is important to allow enough room for the lips particularly with lose ring bits to prevent pinching.
Tongue shows red or swollen areas/soreness or signs of an old injury. A sore tongue can cause problems for the horse as contact with the bit can be very uncomfortable. A soft, mild bit possibly with a rubber or plastic covered mouthpiece may help, and possibly even a single jointed bit if the palette with allow to relieve pressure from the tongue. In extreme cases it may even be necessary to use a bitless (hackamore) bridle for a time until the horse is less sensitive.
The presence of wolf teeth Wolf teeth are small molars that can appear in front of the molars in the area in which the bit sits. Wolf teeth can cause bitting problems, as they can catch on the bit. Some horses don’t seem to mind, but often a softer plastic or rubber covered bit can help prevent the horse from being over sensitive when bridled. Positioning the bit slightly lower than usual can also help.
Sore areas in the corner of the horses mouth. Split lips can happen for a number of reasons, most commonly lack of salivation leading to dryness, bit too thick causing positioned too high in the horses mouth causing stretching/splitting. Bits made from stainless steel are often responsible for sptil lips if th horse does not saivate in them. Using a mouthpiece made from a copper or sweet iron type metal will give your horse a taste and encourage him to accept and mouth the bit. A thinner bit positioned carefully so it is not too high often also very beneficial.
Horse putting their head down/between their legs Pulling and yanking Refusing to soften down onto the bit
Horse throwing their head up Coming behind the bit Head shaking, tongue stuck out

Common problems and possible biting solutions

Size chart for a general foot size comparison, please refer to the manufacturer charts for precise sizes, widths and lengths of individual styles.

The purpose of the bit is for communication and control. In order to achieve communication we need relaxed, confident acceptance of the bit by the horse. Research conducted under controlled scientific methods has recently radically enhanced our understanding and knowledge of mouth anatomy and the different pressure points required to achieve comfort. Applying this knowledge to the design and manufacture of horse bits enables us to more effectively redress bad ways of going or evasions and promote ways of going that develop correct muscle structure and a soft, consistent contact. This emphasis on scientifically informed design has been coupled in our range of bits with the unique recognition that a high thermal conductivity of the mouthpiece must also be significantly influential in bitting. Responding to these scientific advances in knowledge we are meeting a basic requirement best observed by P.R. van Weeren who has commented a : “….The answer should be based on sound scientific work, as only this can yield a good basis for discussion. The answer should be honest and unbiased, because the horse deserves this after 5000 years of unselfish and faithful service.”

For those of us brought up with the weight of tradition being our best means of deciding on horse welfare and training this research has provided a wake up call. We have had to re-evaluate and reconsider our objectives and the methods by which we achieve them. Many traditionally held beliefs have been effectively dispelled in the light of increased knowledge and scientifically controlled testing.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Let’s look at one very basic assumption: Traditionally people have believed that a fat mouthpiece is kind and a thin one is severe. But this cannot be a universal rule. There is a happy medium to be found and if there is insufficient room in the horse’s mouth b then fat is not kind. Indeed a bit that is too fat for the limited space within the mouth may even impair the horse’s ability to breathe and swallow, especially when coupled with hyper flexion (behind the vertical).

Another view holds that different mouthpiece materials can influence and stimulate salivation through smell and taste. But excess salivation is seen with all types of bits, in some horses frequently, in some less so. But importantly we cannot scientifically quantify taste and relate it uniquely to excess salivation. Horses, being grazing animals, salivate constantly but salivation has not been seen to increase with the sight and smell of food. In fact, some celebrated research showed that in dogs, salivation could be stimulated by means other than the presence of food (Ivan Pavlov (1927)). It is in the spirit of a ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system response that Hilary Clayton’s research c might suggest a link between excess saliva and the presence of the bit. From a bitting perspective we only require sufficient saliva in order to lubricate the bit to avoid any friction which could cause rubs.

For many years, people have thought that any bit in the horse’s mouth would inevitably impair the horse’s ability to breathe and swallow. This perception became very firmly rooted despite the very clear understanding in veterinary literature that horses breathe predominantly through the nose with the structures of the mouth playing only a secondary role. Scientifically controlled research now can suggest that modern ergonomic designs of mouthpiece might actually enhance the horse’s ability to breathe and swallow, by stabilizing the pharynx, depressing and steadying the tongue towards the back of the mouth, thus creating a larger respiratory channel.

Another misconception that has come to light is the use of Key Bits. Key Bits or ‘Players’ (loosely attached thin plates in the center of the mouthpiece, for example), were traditionally used when first bitting as it was believed that mouthing and increased salivation was beneficial. On the contrary however, the rider’s objectives are to achieve relaxed, confident and quiet acceptance of the bit, focusing the horse on the signals through the rein for a soft, consistent contact. This cannot be achieved if the horse is first trained to be over-active in the mouth, fixating on the presence of the mouthpiece and trying to play with it.

Quiet, relaxed acceptance of the bit optimizes communication between horse and rider and enhances performance. If our objective with bit design is to be perfected it will use materials and designs intended to discourage mouthing rather than encouraging it. Rather than designing a bit for the horse to ‘explore’ whether by taste or feel, we aim to make the bit itself ‘neutral’ – simply comfortable. This radical re-think overturns what most have taken for granted and rider and horse experience will show how well we have achieved our objectives. Lower oxidation and higher thermal conductivity are scientifically definable features. Thus, scientifically informed design, “honest and unbiased” as van Weeren suggests, is the cornerstone of our approach.

Some simple bit solutions that you can try:

  • If you need more brakes, try a Pelham or gag bit. Click here
  • If you need more steering, try a Tom Thumb snaffle or full cheek bit Click here
  • If you need a softer bit that is gentler on the horse, try a Roller bit or French link bit. Click here
  • If your horse shakes his head and resists the bit, have you considered using a bitless bridle? Click here
  • Does your horse show signs of not accepting the bit or becomes sore in the mouth? Try some bit balm. Click here

An introduction to Snaffles and Curbs Bits

Choosing the right bit for your horse can be a little confusing, y when you consider all the varieties of bits available. To help you understand the difference between D-rings and eggbutts, Waterfords and Weymouths, we’ve prepared an simple bit guide that provides information about the most common styles of bits as well as some of the more unusual ones.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Double Bridle bit

Within the vast world of bits there are two categories that the majority of bits fall into: snaffles and curbs, and both can be used for English or western riding. A snaffle is recognizable by the rings attached to either side of the mouthpiece. The reins attach to the rings and guide the horse through direct contact. For example, when you pull on the right rein the horse turns right in response to pressure on the corners of its mouth. This teaches the horse to bend laterally. When working on downward transitions and halts, snaffles exert pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, causing the horse to flex at the poll and bend vertically.

In contrast, curb bits work on leverage. Reins are attached to shanks, the vertical bars attached to the bit rings. When you pull back on the reins, the shanks create a lever action and pressure is exerted on the horse’s lower jaw, the bars of the mouth and the poll via the crownpiece of the bridle. In general, a longer shank translates into more leverage and hence a more severe bit. Pressure is also felt on the horse’s chin, thanks to the curb strap or curb chain. Curb bits encourage the horse to lower their head and flex at the poll. Though curb bits can be ridden with two hands, in western riding the curb permits the rider to guide their horse through neck reining.

Snaffles and curbs are available in a wide range of mouthpieces, and each style—from smooth to twisted and low or high ports—provides a certain degree of severity. That’s why it’s important to choose a bit wisely, because once a horse’s mouth has become dull or sore due to a strong bit in rough hands, it’s difficult to re-school the horse to become light and responsive once again.

Eggbut Snaffle Bits – These are the simplest and most common type of bit available, and a great place to start for all horses. It is generally s good approach to start with simple bits like this and move to something more complex if you need to.

The basic structure of the snaffle bit will cause relatively little or no pain in the horse’s mouth, making it a good mix for those concerned about resistance. Snaffle bits can vary in size and shape, and you can find an excellent selection on our web site under bits

Double Bridle Bits – For experienced riders who know exactly the amount of control needed to instruct a horse, a double bridle is usually the best choice of bit.

With two bits and two types of rein, riders can exert a more delicate form of control over the horse, something that can make a huge difference when competing in competitions or horse shows.

New riders should be very carefull using these types of bridle bits, as overuse could harm the horse’s mouth and disrupt his temperament.

Hackamore Bits – This type of bit is often known as a ‘bitless bridle’. If the horse is unhappy accepting a bridle or snaffle bit, the hackamore is a sensible compromise, as it does not involve any contact with the horse’s mouth.

Some riders prefer a hackamore bit as they believe it’s a kinder alternative to standard bridles as it exerts pressure on the nose, a less sensitive area than the mouth.

The simplest way to select the right bit for your horse is to measure the width of the horses mouth (from lip to lip on your horse), and adding ¼” to get the proper measurement for your bit.”

A bit should fit comfortably across the mouth with a small space on either side.

In most cases, the simple rule for bit fitting is,

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

What is a Bridle?

The bridle is a type of horse tack that goes on the horse’s head and is the main source of communication and control with the horse.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

What is a Bit?

The bit is an important piece of tack that fits in the horse’s mouth. The bit, bridle and reins function together to give the rider control of the horse.

The bit applies pressure in the horse’s mouth and reinforce the rider’s leg and weight aids. A skilled rider on a well schooled horse needs to use very little pressure on the bit.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Parts of the Bridle

Headpiece (Crownpiece): Goes over the crown of the horse’s head to hold the bridle on. Connects to the cheek pieces.

Throatlatch: Keeps the bridle from slipping off over the horse’s head.

Cheek Piece: Connects the headpiece to the bit.

Noseband: Goes around the horse’s nose and is often used to keep the animal’s mouth closed, or to attach other pieces of equipment, such as martingales.

Reins: Connect the rider’s hands to the bit and the bridle.

Bit: The metal part of the bridle that goes in the horse’s mouth. Primary source of control through the horse’s mouth.

Browband: Extends over the horse’s forehead and prevents the bridle from sliding behind the poll onto the upper neck.

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  • Bridle/ Bit Advice

Does Your Horses Bit Fit Correctly?

Making sure your horses bit fits correctly is an important part of caring for your horse’s wellbeing. In order for the bit to work correctly, firstly it must sit in the horse’s mouth properly.

Often bits are either too small or too big. If your horse’s bit is too big, you will find that the bit will move back and forth in your horse’s mouth which may hit your horse’s teeth. If this occurs, your rein aids will be unclear and will not be transmitted effectively to your horse. However, a bit that Is too small can cause pinching, rubbing and your horse may be unable to close their mouth properly.

If you’re worried that your bit doesn’t fit correctly or the bit just isn’t right for your horse look out for some obvious signs:

  • Opening of the mouth and bit chewing
  • Tongue hangs out whilst riding
  • Staying behind the bit
  • Head tossing
  • Sores or rubbed patches where the bit was.
  • Bit rings should not press hard against your horse’s face


Checking that the bit fits correctly could possibly be the solution for your horse that is misbehaving. Whether or not this be the case, as a part of the SHS team we suggest you try this cheap and easy method.

All you need is:

A piece of bailing twine

A ruler/ measuring tape

STEP 1: Put a halter on your horse and have someone to assist you.

STEP 2: Grab the piece of twine and guide it into your horse’s mouth, also position the twine so that it sits in the corner of the lips approximately where the bit would lie.

STEP 3: Pull the twine tight and use your fingers to hold where it’s been positioned at each corner of the lips.

STEP 4: Remove the twine from your horse’s mouth while still holding the string. Then get your assistant to measure the length between your fingers with the ruler or tape measure.

This will give you a quick and easy guide on what size bit you should use for your horse. The general rule is; a well-fitting bit will create one or two wrinkles at the corner of the mouth once the bridle is on. If you are still concerned with how your bit fits, you could always ask your equine dentist, veterinarian or your horse trainer for their advice.


All horse’s mouths have different conformations, which means that you should consider both the length of the mouth piece and the width. If your current bit fits well, you can use that size as a guide when shopping for a new bit.

To correctly measure your bit, lie it on a flat even surface. Then use a ruler or measuring tape and measure along the mouthpiece of the bit. Make sure that you measure from the inside of one ring to the inside of the other ring.

If you are second guessing your current bit size and your horses seems happy and responsive, don’t worry, chances are that the bit fits just fine.

14th February 2019

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

A general guide to ensuring your horse’s bit is at the correct height in the mouth would be to aim for ½ – 1 lip wrinkles at the corners of the mouth. Please bear in mind that mouth conformation varies. Horses with fat and fleshy lips may appear to have many wrinkles at the corner or the mouth without much cheek tension, whereas a thin lipped horse may only show one wrinkle under a large amount of cheek piece tension.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Some horses are also much shorter from the corner of the lip to the muzzle (‘short smile’). In this case it is often tempting to shorten the cheek pieces excessively. However, this can create unnecessary pressure in the commissures of the lip, leading to discomfort, may predispose to rubs and masking of the rein aids.

When fitting a bit with a fixed cheek, such as the Eggbutt Snaffle Bit, the lip should gently brush up against the butt end ensuring a snug, although not tight, fit.

If using a loose ring, the general rule would be to have clearance either side of no more than one eighth of an inch from the corner of the lip up to the hole that the ring passes through.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

The fit of the bit needs to be assessed at rest and then with a contact as some designs will shorten up more than others under rein contact. It is quite common for horse riders to employ loose rings that are too big for the mouth. This causes the mouthpiece to slide across the mouth as the rider changes bend or direction. The resulting friction often causes rubs in the commissures of the mouth. The lozenge can also cause damage under these circumstances.

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How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Fitting a bit for your horse

Your horse’s bridle and bit are more than just decor. The bit helps you communicate with your horse, and depending on the style of bit, can be quite complicated. Fitting a bit for your horse is just as important as saddle fit, if not more.

Things to consider for the best bit fit

  • The bit needs to fit the width of his mouth. What I mean by this is that there is about 1/4 of an inch or more on either side of his lips when the bit is resting in his mouth. Careful that there is not too much extra, as this causes the bit to slide side to side. The reason for this is to keep the very fleshy lips away from any “pinchy” areas where the bit meets the bit rings.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

  • It fits the space in his mouth. The space I’m referring to is the area between his upper hard palate and his bars. The bars are the semi-soft area between his upper and lower chompers. Ideally, the bit should be no more than 1/2 of that space. This is where your horse’s specific mouth anatomy, including tongue thickness and palate location, varies from your friend’s horse. This is the exact reason why it’s not totally correct to say that “all thin bits are harsh”. The reality is that some thin bits are actually thick in some horses and vice versa!

Check the position of the bit

  • It’s positioned correctly on the bars of the mouth. Start in the middle, about halfway between the upper and lower teeth. You may have heard the old saying about 1-2 wrinkles in the corner of the mouth being ideal. This is another case in which anatomy sometimes bucks the rules. Go for the position on the bars and feel in his mouth when you are riding over wrinkles.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

The bars of the mouth are seen here, above and below the tongue where there are no teeth.

  • It’s not interfering with his teeth, or his teeth aren’t interfering with his bit. Regular inspections of his mouth by your veterinarian and regular dental care can alleviate alignment issues as well as protect his gums. This also allows your veterinarian to create a “bit seat” if needed in his mouth. A note about wolf teeth, too, which are the tiny teeth that are usually removed while your horse is a very young fellow. Sometimes they come back!
  • It feels good to him and his palate. Be mindful of two or three-piece bits, as the inverted “V” shape created by these bits will press against the palate. This is where test riding several bits and adjusting the bit in his mouth several times comes in handy.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

Measuring for bit fit

  • A word about homemade measuring devices. While it’s a seemingly good idea to grab some rope or twine and use that to measure his mouth, I have an easier suggestion. Grab a super clean bit from a friend and use that instead. Rope, twine, or even a tape measure (yes, I spotted a website that suggested this) can abrade or scrape. A real bit will mimic how a new one will actually fit. Then you can bring it to the tack store and compare sizes and thicknesses. A bit measuring device is straight, and most bits are jointed, and you need to account for that.

Mouth sores and bit sores while fitting a bit

  • If you notice any sores or open areas in the corners of your horse’s mouth, the bit may not be the proper one. You may notice something immediately after trying a new bit, or the sores may develop over time. Many riders use a bit of ointment (like A & D) in the corners of the mouth to help the bit slide around. You may also want to use bit guards – those rubbery rings that go in between your horse’s mouth and the cheekpiece of the bit.
  • There is also the possibility that the mouth sore is not the result of fitting a bit. Summer sores, caused by the partnership between a worm and a fly, are often found around mucus membranes. Some horses, the geniuses that they are, are prone to wood chewing habits that may include getting a wound from a shard of wood. And then there’s the dumb luck of foxtails and other prickly weeds.
  • It’s always worth some detective duty and a call to the vet, just in case. Also be sure to go over your horse’s bridle fit, just in case a cheekpiece, flash, or noseband is improperly fitted.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

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Tack stores and horse catalogs offer a wide range of bits for horses.

It is very important to understand the type of bit which would best suit your horse and riding style.

Bits are usually made of metal or a synthetic material and placed in the mouth of a horse to assist a rider in communicating with the horse. A bit rests on the bars of the horse’s mouth in an area where there are no teeth. It is held on a horse’s head by means of a bridle and has reins attached for use by a rider. A bit consists of two basic pieces, the bit mouthpiece that goes inside the horse’s mouth, and the bit rings of a snaffle bit or shanks of a curb bit, to which a bridle and reins attach.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouthA diagram of a bit in a horse’s mouth

Bits are designed to work by pressure, not pain. Depending on the style of bit, pressure can be brought to bear on the bars, tongue, and roof of the mouth, as well as the lips, chin groove and poll. Bits offer varying degrees of control and communication between rider and horse depending upon their design and on the skill of the rider. It is important that the style of bit is appropriate to the horse’s needs and is fitted properly for it to function correctly and be as comfortable as possible for the horse.

All bits act with a combination of pressure and leverage, often with other pressure applied by parts of the bridle such as the curb chain on the chin, noseband on the jaw and face, or pressure on the poll from the headstall. While there are hundreds of variations available, bits/bridles are basically divided by the way they use or do not use leverage. There are three general types of bit/bridles used on horses, bit-less bridles, direct pressure bits, and leverage bits.

Bit-less bridles do not have any piece that is actually in the horse’s mouth. Bit-less bridles apply pressure to parts of the horse’s face and head, such as the nose, jaw, and poll, but not to the mouth. A hackamore is what is traditionally thought of when someone thinks of bit-less. However, a true hackamore has a heavy noseband where many newer bit-less bridles rely on smaller leather straps across the nose or under the chin of the horse to apply pressure. Traditional hackamores include the bosal and mechanical hackamores. Common bit-less bridles are the side-pull and the cross-under.

Direct pressure bits are bits that do not have any leverage. Basically, if the rider pulls with two pounds of force, the horse feels two pounds of pressure directly to his mouth. The most common direct pressure bit is a Snaffle bit. This bit uses a bit ring at the mouthpiece to apply direct pressure on the bars, tongue and corner of the mouth. The reins on a snaffle bit are fastened to the bit ring and have a free range of movement in the ring. A curb strap is sometimes seen on a snaffle, but it is not attached in a way as to add leverage when pressure is applied with the reins. The simple purpose of the curb strap on a snaffle bit is to keep the bit from sliding through the mouth of the horse.

Leverage bits are bits that allow the reins to be fastened to the mouthpiece so that the rider has some leverage when pulling on the reins. If the rider pulls with two pounds of force, the horse will feel more than two pounds of pressure—the amount varies based on the amount of leverage the particular bit provides. Leverage bits have the curb strap attached in a fixed manner so that the horse feels pressure at the poll and chin groove. There are many different types of leverage bits, but most fall into one of three categories—Curb, Pelham or Kimberwicke.

  • A Curb bit is a leverage bit that uses a type of lever called a shank to put pressure not only on the mouth, but also on the poll and chin groove. The length and shape of the shank changes the amount pressure felt by the horse. In general, a longer shank exerts greater the pressure.
  • A Pelham bit is a single curb bit with two sets of reins attached to rings at both the mouthpiece and end of the shank. This partly combines snaffle and curb pressure, allowing the rider to vary the cues and pressure felt by the horse. This bit requires a skilled rider to use both sets of reins properly.
  • The Kimberwicke is a hybrid between a snaffle and curb that uses a slight amount of mild curb leverage on a bit ring by use of set rein placement on the ring. This bit resembles a snaffle, but has slots in the bit ring that the reins are fastened into. Once the reins are fastened into a slot, they apply pressure to the poll and chin groove in much the same manner as the curb bit when force is applied with the reins. The further the reins are attached down the ring, the greater the force felt by the horse.

Various bits have options for mouthpiece design. Bit mouthpieces may be single jointed, double-jointed, “mullen” (a straight bar), or have an arched port in the center of varying height, with or without joints. Bits with joints allow for tongue pressure relief or apply pressure to the roof of the mouth.

Some mouthpieces have rollers, rings or small “keys” that the horse can move with its tongue. These are designed to both give a nervous or “busy mouthed” horse something to play with as well as to encourage salivation.

Various types of metal or synthetic substances are used for bit mouthpieces. Commonly used metals include stainless steel and nickel alloys, which generally do not rust; sweet iron, aurigan and copper are also used. Aluminum is considered drying and is discouraged as a mouthpiece metal. Synthetic mouthpieces may be made with or withoutinternal metal cable or bar reinforcement. Rubber bits are generally thicker than metal bits. It is important to keep bits clean after use.

When it comes to choosing and fitting a bit, it may be necessary to enlist the help of a professional. Your trainer or local tack shop is a great place to start. Do keep in mind that each horse is an individual and what works well for one horse or rider, may not be preferred by another. Be prepared to experiment and listen to your horse!

Horses evade the bit when they are uncomfortable in their mouths. That can happen for a number of reasons. The most common one is that the rider has unsteady hands. The rider’s hands may be seesawing or pulling or constantly bumping the horse’s mouth and the horse looks for a way to get away from the annoyance. The bit may be too thick or too wide for that horse’s mouth or the horse may have a dental problem. The bit may fit the horse well but be the wrong bit in a particular rider’s hands. Horses that have been ridden in draw reins often go behind the bit when the draw reins are taken off.

Evasions take various forms. Some horses tend to go above the bit. They raise their heads high, tense their neck, tighten their back, and tense their hindquarters, often because their conformation predisposes them that way in the first place. The result is that they cannot step off correctly with their hind feet. Horses commonly evade the bit by going above it when the rider’s hands are unsteady or when there is not enough forward motion. The rider may be tentative and doesn’t allow the horse’s forward motion, the rider may not know how to use driving aids properly to send the horse forward, or the rider may not have the strength and coordination to ask the horse to move forward freely.

Other horses go behind the bit by curling their neck and putting their noses to their chests to avoid the hand and bit. This is a harder evasion to correct than going above the bit. Horses commonly go behind the bit when, again, the rider’s hands are unsteady. Bits that are too large, do not fit properly, and draw reins are other contributors to the problem. If a horse is worked in a leverage bit with a chain under his chin, he is more likely to try to evade by going behind rather than above it.

The problem with both of these evasions is that they quickly become habits. A trainer with good hands may help the horse learn how to quietly accept contact with the bit again. However, when a habit becomes deeply ingrained, the horse will want to fall back into it whenever someone with just average riding skills makes him the least bit uncomfortable again.

When unsteady hands are the root of the problem, the rider needs to work on an independent seat. That means the rider can ride in balance with quiet hands. The rider should never use the reins for support or balance and the hands have to be able to work independently of the rider’s seat. Only then can the rider apply the aids independently and correctly.

To achieve an independent seat, the rider has to work his or her way up the riding tree starting with relaxation, then balance, following the horse’s motion, applying the aids and coordinating the aids. With an independent seat, the rider can finally influence the horse.

To understand how unsteady hands feel to the horse, pair up with a buddy and play the “bit game.” One person holds the bit while the other holds the rein and applies pulls, bumps and other motions. Simulate the motions you typically use when asking your horse for turns, half halts, and halts and you’ll have a greater appreciation of your horse’s viewpoint.

If a horse has developed a bit evasion because of its rider’s unsteady hands, that rider’s first goal should be to work on getting her hands independent of her seat. For example, if she can follow the motion of the canter with her seat, her hands should not be following the motion, too. A simple test for this is to see if she can drop her pinkie onto the horse’s neck and keep it there. If she can’t, her hands are bouncing. Another test is to hold the whip horizontally from hand to hand and hold it against the horse’s neck to see if one hand is moving more than the other. Working without reins on a longe line is a time-honored way to help a rider develop an independent seat.

Once the rider has an independent seat and her unsteady hands are no longer the issue, she can begin to work on undoing her horse’s evasive habit. She can longe her horse in side reins or work him in a round pen with side reins. The steady, elastic contact of side reins helps the horse understand that reaching for the bit can be comfortable after all.

Putting the horse on the predictable pattern of a circle can help set a good rhythm and encourage the horse to relax. It is critical to get the horse to relax in order to correct the evasion. Like longing, the horse working on a circle understands where he is supposed to be and he will start to experiment with reaching for the bit.

Another excellent way to encourage rhythm and relaxation is to work the horse over low cavelletti or ground poles. These also encourage the horse to stretch forward and down. When he does this and finds that he can now trust his riders hands to be steady and soft, the horse will begin reaching for the bit.

Although it is not an evasion of the bit, some horses learn to lean on their riders hands for balance. Half halts and transitions can help these horses bring their hind legs farther under their bellies and carry more of their weight on their hindquarters. As the horse steps under himself more, he becomes better balanced and can soften in front.

If your horse evades the bit, one of the first things you should do is have his teeth checked by an equine dentist to make sure there is nothing causing him physical discomfort. Then make sure that the bit is the right size and is fitted correctly. The bit should not be too thick or too thin. It should not stick out either side of the horse’s mouth nor should it pinch the lips. If the bit hangs too low or too high in the horse’s mouth, it can bump the teeth and make the horse uncomfortable. With a snaffle, there should be one or two wrinkles in the lips so that the bit is seated firmly in place. A dropped, figure eight or flash noseband can help hold a snaffle in place so it cannot slip sideways through the horse’s mouth if the rider takes too much rein on one side or the other. Make sure the throatlatch is not so tight that it restricts the horse’s breathing and that all of the bridle straps lay flat, not twisted.

If the horse is always comfortable with his bit, the bridle, and his rider’s hands, bit evasions will not get started in the first place.

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Eliminate confusing horse jargon by defining commonly used terms related to tack and equipment.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouthThis horse is wearing a surcingle while being longed at the MSU Horse Teaching & Research Center. Photo by Taylor Fabus, MSU Extension.

In this article series from Michigan State University Extension, we will explore a variety of often confusing horse-related terms. In previous articles, we have covered beginner riding terms and advanced riding terms. In this article, we’ll delve into the complex world of tack and equipment. While we certainly won’t be able to cover all varieties of tack, today’s article will help define many commonly used items you may encounter as a new horse owner or enthusiast. We’ll also cover some common misspellings you may confront in the equine industry.

Tack and equipment terms

Girth and cinch

For the most part, these two terms can be used interchangeably. This essential piece of tack can be described, in layman’s terms, as the belt that holds the saddle snug to the horse’s body. The girth should be securely attached to each side of the saddle and wrap around the horse’s rib cage, right behind the horse’s shoulders. Girths also get their namesake as this area of the horse can be referred to as the girth or heartgirth.

A girth that is too loose can cause a saddle to slip backward or even off to the side and cause a dangerous situation for both horse and rider. On the other hand, a girth can certainly be too tight and cause discomfort for a horse and affect its ability to perform for their rider. Check out this article from, “Girth Strap Tightness.”

Girths, like most horse equipment we’ve discussed, can be made out of a variety of materials that include leather, rayon, mohair, neoprene or even covered in sheepskin for horses with sensitive or thin skin.


This one can be especially confusing since it combines two already-common terms into a word that has a very different meaning. A headstall has nothing to do with the stall your horse may sleep in each night, but is instead an important part of any bridle. The headstall is the portion of the bridle that wraps around the horse’s head and to which you attach the bit. You’ll then attach the reins, and potentially the curb strap, to the bit itself.

The term bridle is actually referring to the entire piece of equipment that includes the headstall, bit and reins. It’s important to also know that a bridle needs to be carefully fitted to a horse before it’s used, and you can learn more about that with this MSU Extension article, “Proper fitting of a bridle.”


When used as a noun, “shank” is referring to a specific part of a bit. You will only find a shank on a curb or combination bit, and not on a snaffle bit. A shank is the side portion of a bit that does not go into a horse’s mouth. Instead, it affects the leverage that a bit applies on a horse’s mouth. Generally, the longer the shank the more amount of leverage a bit has. The upper portion of the shank is where the headstall will be attached, and the lower portion is where the reins will attach.

Conversely, if the word shank is used as a verb, is it most likely referring to a quick, hard pull that a handler would perform on a horse’s lead rope. This action would most likely be performed in order to gain a horse’s attention and keep their focus on the task at hand, all in an effort to keep both horse and handler safe.

Curb strap

Here we have another part of the bridle when a curb or combination bit is used. The curb strap is attached to the bit itself and runs smoothly under the horse’s jaw. This part of the bridle is crucial for a leverage bit to act correctly and should also be carefully fitted. Curb straps can be chain, leather, nylon or many other similar materials.

Tie down

A tie down, used in some western disciplines, does not tie something in place like its name implies. Instead, a tie down is a piece of equipment that consists of a strap running from the girth to a noseband. This strap gives the horse something to lean and balance on when moving at high rates of speed and changing direction. This is especially useful for a horse competing in a timed event, such as barrel racing.

Common misspellings

Lunge versus lounge versus longe

When referring to exercising a horse in a circle on a long line, the correct spelling is longe.

In context: My horse won the longe line class.

Surcingle versus curcingle

When referring to the strap, often made of leather or nylon, that fastens around a horse’s girth area, the correct spelling is surcingle. This piece of equipment is often used in ground work and is the foundation of a harness.

In context: The horse in the picture is wearing a surcingle while being longed.

Rein, rain, reign

When referring to the piece of equipment attached to the bit and held in a rider’s hands, the correct spelling is rein. The same is true when you’re referring to the class of reining.

In context: I was having trouble steering so my instructor told me to tighten my reins.

Gait versus gate

When referring to the gaits that a horse can perform (walk, trot, canter), the correct spelling is gait.

In context: The announcer called for a change of gait from the trot to the walk.

Bridle versus bridal

When referring to the piece of equipment that we already described above, the correct spelling is bridle.

In context: My horse’s bridle was properly fitted to their head.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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Posted by Hannah Jones on Jun 07, 2018

How do you measure a horse’s bit size?

It’s not that hard to determine an equine’s bit size, even if they’ve never worn a bit. All you really need is a measuring tool and a length of twine! This video shows you how to do it!

What is a Bit?

Before we dive in to how to determine a horse’s bit size, let’s first explain what a bit is. Did you know bits have been used on horses for thousands of years? Advancement in bit technology and design have come a long way since then, but their function and purpose remain virtually unchanged. An expert rider uses a bit, along with other ‘natural’ aids, such as their voice, legs, and seat to guide a horse and give it commands.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth
As long as horses have been domesticated, people have used bits to guide them. (Photo by Jennifer Murray from Pexels)

Bits are typically manufactured from different types of metal, which can then be coated or covered with rubber or plastic for increased gentleness. The bit lays in the bars of a horse’s mouth between its front and back teeth. This positioning prevents the bit from causing discomfort or damage to a horse’s teeth.

Equine bits and their uses

Bits can be used in a variety of ways, but the most common differences in usage involve the way that the reins — the pieces of leather connected to the bit — are held by a rider.

Direct reining, commonly used in English riding, applies pressure on both sides of the bit evenly. If you want your horse to go to the right, your right hand would slightly bring the rein back toward your hip, asking the horse to move his head, and body, in that direction. Same with the left, using your left hand to pull the left rein back toward your hip.

The other common type is neck reining, which is usually used in western riding. This allows the rider to use only one hand to ride with, leaving the other free for work. In neck reining, the horse moves away from the pressure that the rein gives when it is lightly laid on their neck, and puts very slight pressure on the bit.

Horse Bits Explained

There are two major kinds of bits, the snaffle bit and the curb bit, and beyond these, there are countless variations. The snaffle is the simpler bit, consisting of only a cheekpiece and a mouthpiece.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth
A snaffle bit for horses. Photo by Hannah Jones.

The snaffle bit tends to put less pressure on the horse’s mouth. When you give two pounds of pressure, the horse feels two pounds of pressure. Some variations on the snaffle bit include the full cheek, eggbutt, D-ring, and loose ring.

The other major type of bit is the curb bit, which consists of the cheekpiece, curb chain, shank, and mouthpiece. The curb bit shank uses leverage to put pressure on not only the horse’s mouth, but also the poll. This design can increase pressure by four times depending on its size.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth
An equine curb bit. Photo by Hannah Jones.

An equine curb bit. Photo by Hannah Jones.If a rider were to apply two pounds of pressure on the bit, it would give up to eight pounds of pressure depending on the size of the shank. All bits should be used with care, but a curb bit should only be used on a well-trained, high-level horse; if used improperly it can cause serious damage to a horse.

Some horses don’t require or use a bit at all. Bitless riding prevents heavy-handed riders from hurting their horses’ mouths, and allows trail horses to snack and drink without the need to change to a halter mid-ride. Not all horses are capable of riding without a bit; it takes a gentle and willing horse to comply with this type pressure. Sidepull, bosal, hackamore, and other bitless bridles utilize pressure points on the nose to help guide and direct the horse.

How to measure for a bit

If you are unsure about what size bit your horse might need, you just need a few simple tools and a little bit of patience to figure it out. These tools are:

  • a measuring tape
  • bailing twine or string
  • a marker

You’ll want to make sure your horse is tied up or being held by someone else, because you are going to need both hands for this exercise. Take your string and put it horizontally in your horse’s mouth. Hold it all the way back toward the corners of the mouth where the bit would lay, and pull it straight for accurate measuring. Make sure to hold the string right up against your horse’s cheeks, and then mark those spots with your marker.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth
A properly-sized horse bit should fit comfortably between the cheek and teeth. (Photo by Laila Klinsmann from Pexels)

Now take your handy-dandy measuring tape and measure from one mark to the other on your string and that will give you the size bit you need. The average bit size for a horse size is between 5 and 6 inches, but will vary by breed, build, and genetic makeup. Horses and ponies with more refined noses such as Arabs and Welsh Cobs often need bits less than 5 inches.

If you already have a bit, how do you figure out its size, and whether it will be compatible with your horse? Using your measuring tape you can simply measure the mouthpiece of the bit between the cheekpieces. Do not include the cheekpieces in this measurement!

Off to fit your bit!

Now you are all set to take your newfound bit fit knowledge (as opposed to fit bit knowledge) and use it to decide on the proper bit size for your horse or pony pal! Do you have additional thoughts about bit fit or other horse-related questions or comments? Let us know! We would love to hear from you!

This bit was designed to decrease the discomfort at the corners of the horse’s mouth. The bit will not pinch. The extra 3 inch rings at each end of the mouthpiece float independently to disperse the pressure across the lip and cheek helping the bit to become more stable in the horse’s mouth allowing the horse to become more responsive to the rider’s cues. The rein attaches to the floating “D” ring outside the cheek rings. “Lifetime Guarantee” on material and workmanship. No returns on bits that have been opened and used, and are not defective. There are now three bit styles available, the 2-piece mouthpiece, which is large and therefore extremely gentle, and the 3-piece mouthpiece (dog bone), which applies pressure to the tongue and outside of the bars for better control and a brand new raised snaffle for horses with a shallow pallet or thick tongue (see below). For additional comfort, all bits are made of sweet iron. Click here to read about Mark’s experience with the Rockin’ S Snaffle or contact the designer, Mark Sulan, at or [email protected] for more information.

Raised Rockin’ S Snaffle Bit

We began using the original Rocking S Snaffle Bit in 2006. Almost immediately we were struck by the positive changes that occurred in most horses we tried it on. Horses that had previously been head tossers, bit chompers, or just “hard mouthed” suddenly became way more amenable and easier to work with.

Still, one problem the bit was unable to address was the same problem most traditional snaffle bits have. That is, it didn’t allow enough room in the mouth for those horses that had low pallets or thick tongues. For these horses, there are very few bits on the market that are of much use, or that they are comfortable in.

I had been having some success with these types of horses with a snaffle bit I had picked up years ago which had a relatively solid mouthpiece and a medium port for tongue relief. In mid-2007 I contacted Mark Sulan, the fellow that came up with the original design for the Rocking S Snaffle, and talked with him about the possibility of using his cheekpieces on a mouthpiece similar to the mouthpiece that had been helpful to the horses in question.

My original idea for the mouthpiece was for it to have a port for tongue relief for thick tongued horses, and for the port to lay back in the horse’s mouth so it wouldn’t interfere with horses with low pallets. This idea was kicked around for a while between Mark and I and a couple of other folks. A mouthpiece was designed but quickly discarded due to too many moving parts.

Eventually, a design was settled on, and prototypes of the bit were built. The bit was tried on a large number of horses, some with low pallets, some with thick tongues, and some who simply seemed troubled by having a bit in their mouth. In each case, there was a notable positive difference within minutes of the bit going in the horse’s mouth. In one case, one of our student instructors had been riding a horse for over a year and was unable to get the horse to settle. The mare was extremely agitated all the time, and it didn’t matter if she was in a bit (of any kind) a bosal, halter, or whatever. We tried the prototype of the Raised Snaffle on her and she immediately dropped her head, relaxed, and went to work as if there had never been an issue in the first place.

How to put the bit in a horse's mouth

This is pretty typical of the response we are seeing with the vast majority of horses we have tried the bit on to date. Differences

Snaffle bits all operate relatively the same way in a horse’s mouth. In short, the mouthpiece usually points toward the top (roof) of the horse’s mouth and slightly forward, toward the horse’s front teeth. When pressure is applied to the reins, the mouthpiece “breaks”, creating a sort of nutcracker effect in the horse’s mouth and exaggerates the upward/forward movement of the mouthpiece.

The Rocking S Raised snaffle operates in a completely opposite manner inside the horse’s mouth. As mentioned earlier, the three-piece mouthpiece is ported. It also lies back in the horse’s mouth, toward the molars, instead of forward, toward the horse’s front teeth. In addition, the mouthpiece lies relatively flat on the tongue. With this design, instead of the bit closing down and acting like a nutcracker when pressure is applied to the reins, the mouthpiece actually opens up in the horse’s mouth relieving pressure on the inside. It seems to be this part of the design that is popular with the horses we’ve tried it on. The vast majority of horses we’ve tried the bit on are immediately softer, quieter, and more willing. Another benefit we’ve noticed is this allows the softness in the rider to come out as well.

The only downside to this bit that we’ve seen so far is most horses do mouth it more than normal for the first 15 minutes to an hour or so before they quiet down. I attribute this to the fact that the bit sits in the mouth in a completely different way than any other bit on the market. As such it has a different feel in the mouth, which I don’t necessarily see as a bad thing. Part of what training is about is breaking old patterns, and that is something this bit appears to do in a very quick manner.

To date, we have tried this bit on about 100 horses and have seen dramatically positive differences in all but about three. Of those three, two showed only a slight difference and in one there was no difference at all.

So again, we are not touting this bit as an end-all to training issues, and we are not saying it will work as described on every horse. However, it does seem to be helpful to the vast majority we have tried it on so far. Please click here to go to our shopping cart to purchase a Rockin’ S Snaffle.